The Hardest Kind of Learning Happens in the Night.
Our family vacations had been “tenting” trips since my first summer in diapers.
The first tent we had looked like Dad snagged it right off a Civil War movie lot. It was an army-surplus tent that Mom hated because it had no floor and kept nothing out. It had no screens to keep mosquitoes out; the wind (and who knows what else) could come right in under the side walls. Here are two pictures of us camping in that tent on a beach somewhere along Lake Huron. See? No floor. Dad bought a cot for Mom, but she got cold up there. So Dad took the cot and Mom slept cuddled up with us on a tarp that kept most of the sand from getting into our sleeping bags. That's Kathy and I in the top photo. I was 15-months-old and do not remember this, of course, but I can see why my mom was thrilled when Dad pitched that tent and bought a "real" one.
It was brilliant on Dad's part: by breaking Mom in with such a crummy tent (set up on a sandy slope), it made a decent tent on flat ground luxurious accommodations--
imagine: screens, zippers, and a sewn-in floor. Each night she'd be the last one in from her flashlight walk to the privy
(we always used "primitive" campgrounds which typically had no electricity or bath-house). Mom would zip the door shut behind her and then chirp with girlish glee, "Isn't this cozy?" And it was. To this day, I marvel that a secure enclosure of canvas around a family can generate such a feeling.
The camping trip we were about to take in August of 1970 came on the heels of finishing the well written of in the previous chapters. By then our family was on its third tent. We'd outgrown the second (the "pop-up" behind the VW bus in the 3rd photo above). I've written about this third tent before (here
), but this chapter is not about the tent or the camping trip; it's about something that happened the night before we left.
To fully understand the context of this event, however, we had to go back to that first army surplus tent in 1957. Look closely in that second photo and you’ll see Mom holding our Springer Spaniel, Duke. In the early days, Duke went camping with us, but as that picture indicates... camping was hard enough work for Mom without dragging the dog along, and once we had a tent with a sewn-in floor (that could be swept) and screens (that could be ripped), not having the dog along was added to the list of luxuries.
In the summer of 1970, Duke had been around as long as I could remember. Dad bought him as a pup in 1956, a couple months after I was born. Imagine, my mom with four kids below the age of five; two still in diapers and drinking from bottles; all six living in a duplex on Lapeer Avenue, and Dad decides to add a hunting dog to the mix. Many women would have put their foot down, but Mom rarely did, and then once Duke came, she had to be even more careful about where she put her foot down.
Fortunately for Mom, Duke was an outside dog. A family's relationship with an outside dog is different than it is with an inside dog. Inside dogs only go outside for one reason, and other than that, they're pretty much treated like a family member. Outside dogs are less connected to the family and more in touch with their canine evolution if you will; they are dogs, content to be dogs, content to do dog things, like dig holes, mark their turf, bark at things that move, sleep where and when they choose, and escape from the yard as if it were Stalag 17
If you live on a farm, where much of your day is spent outdoors or in a pick-up truck, outside dogs become close companions. The same is true for a hunting dog, if the owner has time to hunt. But we sometimes acquire the accoutrements
of a dream before the dream arrives. Duke represented a life Dad thought was just around the corner for us. He hoped someday to build a house out in the country, and within three years he did, but as it turned out, we only lived in that house for one year
when Dad’s job at Bell moved us to the suburbs of Detroit.
So Duke, the erstwhile
hunting dog, ended up being a cooped up Spaniel--first in the picket-fenced yard on Lapeer Avenue, and then in an even smaller yard in Roseville where he saw life through a chain-linked fence for ten years.
There are many reasons why the fenced-in suburbs are not ideal for an outside dog, but the one that comes first to mind is the fact that our back yard became a mine field of smooshy bombs. Oh, these bombs did not blow a leg off when stepped on but they did make us scream and hop on one leg in much the same way (especially in the bare-foot summertime).
Sad to say, my most vivid interaction with Duke through those years revolved around two functions: The first was feeding time, when I scooped nasty dog food out of a can into his crusty bowl and he chomped it down so fast I could barely thunk it off the spoon. The second involved a shovel. You've heard the expression "It's a dog's life." Well it can be summed up in two words: eat and excrete. The closer the relationship to humans, the more other verbs get added to the list.
One of the first poems I ever wrote was about that dog. It was actually a song. The first verse went like this:
“We had a good ol’ dog,
His name was Duke.
He used to chew on grass
until he’d puke.
Suppertime he’d sit at the door and beg.
Springtime he’d latch on to your...
I don't think I'll finish that last rhyme.
I was young at the time
and prone to detail.
Duke was a male,
suffice to say,
and Dad saw fit to leave him that way.
(This photo is out of sequence. It's of Dad and our second Springer "Prop," taken in the '80's when Dad was in his mid-fifties, but I wanted to include it to show the "crew cut" and good physical condition he maintained throughout his life.)
I hope it doesn't sound like we had no affection for Duke. We did. When he was young (see photo of us kids dressed for the first day of school), he'd run back and forth so fast across the back yard barking at the mailman that he wore a hard path right in the lawn. And sometimes Dad would take Duke and us boys out to the railroad tracks along Vandyke and Duke would run free like the ol' days when Dad took him hunting. He'd come back all full of burrs in the dreadlocks that hung from his ears and legs.
But when he got older, he figured out that there was little point in running at top speed from side fence to side fence, barking at the mailman. The path in the lawn grew in, and Duke pretty much just spent the day in the dog house inside the unattached garage. We had to drag him out just to take this picture with Jimmy in 1969. By then, he’d had a stroke and the left side of his face hung low and his rear legs were no longer coordinated with his front legs. He could walk but it looked kind of like one of those horse costumes when two different people are inside playing the front and rear.
One time my cousin Keith was visiting while our dads cut each other's hair
. He had never seen Duke since the stroke. Ol’ Duke hobbled up to him and looked up with that half-smile-half-frown face, and my cousin whispered, “You really should put him down.”
Dave, always the kidder, replied, “Why would we insult him? Making fun of him won't accomplish a thing.”
“Not that insult kind of put down
… you know PUT HIM DOWN…have him put to sleep.”
“Oh, that kind of put down
.” Dave said, as if he had needed the explanation.
I suppose we joked about it because we didn’t want to think about it. Dad was the same way. As long as Duke’s tail could wag and he didn’t seem to be in any pain, he just didn’t have the heart to make that final decision. Then in August of 1970, the decision imposed itself on Dad.
Friday night, just a few days after the last crock of the well was sunk, we were all packing for our camping trip which was not hard to do.
Years before, Mom bought six sturdy 9x10x17" cardboard boxes from a Detroit brewery. (Yes, she felt very guilty buying anything in a place where she could smell beer in the air, but she had read in one of her magazines that brewery boxes were very durable and perfect for this idea. So she went in and out of the place as quickly as possible and hoped nobody saw.)
She then spray painted the boxes blue to hide their "evil" origins, and then just to fully sanctify the boxes for their new use, she stuck a golden eagle decal on the end. “There. Now no one will ever know,” she smiled as she wrote our names on the box (See it there on the lid? Double-click to enlarge.).
That box was all each child could pack for the trip. “Can I take this?” We’d ask, holding up some item. “You can take whatever you can put in your box” was Dad's simple answer.
[Tom, how in the world did you pack for a week in that 9x10x17" box? Shoot. I could pack in that box and still come home with clean clothes. We lived in our swim suits and when we weren’t swimming we wore practically the same thing every day. That box was no problem. And in case you're wondering how I still have my blue camping box. It has not been treated sentimentally. That magazine article Mom read was right: brewery boxes are practically indestructible. Mom gave me my box back in the 80's and I’ve been using it under my workbench for decades (although I don’t think I could live out of it for a week anymore).]
So we all had our blue boxes packed and Dad was ready to load the tent and the boxes in the trunk and car-top carrier. (You remember we would have taken the Country Squire, but Mom had ruined the transmission just two weeks before).
This last photo is of Jimmy in the summer of 1969. He's sitting just outside the back door of our Roseville house. The garage is at the front of the car in the background. The open gate is just beyond Duke's face. By then, the gates could be left open for hours, but Duke would never leave the yard.
You can barely see Duke in the right side of the frame. Now imagine that same spot in the back yard a year later on a Friday night in August, It's late, past dark, the family will be crammed into that '65 Plymouth Fury early the next morning for an eight hour trip to their favorite camp ground on Georgian Bay, in Ontario, Canada. My sister Kathy is 18--just finished high school-- and will be leaving for college in three weeks. She is out on a date with her "friend" Roger, but in on her bed beside stacks of things already packed for college is her blue box ready to go (by this age she was also allowed to pack some things that did not fit in her blue box). Jimmy is asleep in our room. The Plymouth is out in front of the house. Dad is in the garage, repairing a zipper on the car-top carrier (which he made himself, of course) so he asks Paul to back the car up the driveway so we can load the trunk, put the car-top carrier on the car, and "Hit the hay because we're heading out bright and early!" Paul opens the double gate (as you can barely see in that last picture), and begins slowly backing up the Plymouth between the two houses. Dave and I are standing by paying little attention until...
A painful yelp pierced through the night. The brake lights lit. Paul pulled forward having felt only the slightest rise from the right-rear tire, but the yelp left no doubt what had happened. Dave and I run to the back of the car. Paul steps out and squeezes between the bumper and the fence post. Dad rushes from the garage. Duke is lying on the cement driveway. Oddly, his front legs are at rest in front of him, head erect, as if he has already given up on the idea that the back half of him will move. His back legs are off to the side in an unnatural position. They have been run over but his lower back was spared when Paul pulled forward. He seemed to be paralyzed from the waist back, which may have been a blessing. He was not whimpering and, I suspect, was in little pain.
I wish I could say some tender words of reassurance came from Dad to Paul. I’m sure he wished the same for many years. But he was tired, and he and Paul had had issues especially when it came to the car. So I like to think that Dad’s immediate response stemmed from the times Paul got in trouble for sneaking off in the car BEFORE he had his license, or from any of the other harsh father-son talks Dad and Paul had exchanged when it came to matters of driving.
I'd like to think those things because thinking otherwise means my father was unable to take a breath and see that Paul was already crying when he yelled, “How could you run over the dog, Paul? We’re you watching where you were going? You know the poor guy can barely see—can barely walk. Now look at him!” and he stormed off to the basement.
“It’s okay, Paul,” Dave said. “Duke should have moved out of the way. He always moves in time when we pull the car in forward.”
“You were going very slow,” I added, “We were standing right over there and didn’t see him either. And you pulled forward as soon as you heard him.”
Mom stepped out the back door, but couldn’t come close to the three of us huddled around our dog. “Is he okay?” she asked, holding in panic with a stifled sob.
“No, Mom, he’s not okay.” Paul mumbled.
“Well, where’s your dad?” her voice cracked as she stepped in the back door and went to the basement.
A short time later, Dad came upstairs but did not step out the back door. He went through the house to the front door, stepped around to the car, and put something in the back seat. He then pulled an old blanket from Duke's dog house in the garage. He spread the blanket on the ground in front of Duke, gently lifted him onto the blanket far from the car, then draped the corners over him so that only his head showed through the swaddling. He backed the car up beyond the brick corner of the house so the front passenger door could be opened, and gently put Duke in the center of the front bench seat.
“Come on, Paul. I’ll need you to come with me.”
“Where are we going?” Paul asked, still wiping his nose and eyes.
“To the property.” was all Dad said.
As the car rolled down the driveway, Dave followed as far as the front porch where we sat in silence.
"Did you see what Dad put in the back seat," he asked.
"One of his rifles," he whispered.
There was really nothing else to say. Dave and I just sat there with our backs against the brick wall and cried. We were suddenly full of sentiment as if the life we shared with Duke was like some classic Disney movie. In reality it was not, but as I said earlier, Duke and I had been born the same year. That made him over 14 years old, which, if what they say about “dog years”
is true, made him about 85. He had always been there. It took something like this to help us know when it was his time.
Just then Kathy and her date pulled up to a silent stop at the curb.
“Oh, great,” Dave sniffed, “Now Roger's gunna see us crying.”
I pulled up the collar of my T-shirt and wiped my drippy nose on the inside and blotted my cheeks with the outside. We both sat up a little and tried to look normal. Kathy and Roger stopped at the bottom step. The porch light was not on and they had not seen us until then.
“Hi, Tom and Dave,” Kathy said, clearly in a good mood from her date.
Dave and I did not know Mom was standing at the screen door over our right shoulders, but through it she said, “We have some bad news, Kathy," and turned on the porch light.
“Don’t turn on the light, Mom” Dave whined, hoping the dark would hide our tear-streaked faces. It was too late. Kathy saw but said nothing. Roger just looked puzzled.
“Duke died.” Mom said, which was not quite accurate, but we let it go.
“How did he die?” Kathy asked not yet emotionally affected by the news.
“Come on in and I’ll tell you,”
This left us on the front porch with Roger, who probably did not mean to sound cold when he said, “So looks like you guys have been crying. I never picked up that you were that close to your dog.”
We had only known Roger for a few months, and he had never seen us in the back yard with Duke during that time, but still that hardly qualified him to speak on the subject. Sometimes it’s best just to not say a thing, and though he had not followed that rule, I held my tongue.
Dave, however, was only a year younger than Roger. They had both been on the wrestling team together at school. He had much more pressure on him to speak and tried to explain that it was just kind of sad the way it happened. By then Mom had told Kathy about the accident and she didn’t want to come back outside. She just said good-bye through the screen door, and Roger drove away.
When Dad and Paul got back, we didn't talk about it. We just packed the car and went to bed. We didn't talk about it for years, but in time I wanted to write about it, and had to ask Paul just how it went that night.
By the time Paul was opening the front log-gate of the property, Dad had cooled down, and Paul knew he was not in trouble, but as he put it..."I still felt like crap." It was strange, but in the two years since we'd bought the land—two busy, hard-working years—this was the first time Duke had ever been out there. Duke could hardly walk in our yard much less enjoy a run in the woods, and so it never occurred to us to bring him there.
Dad drove slowly down the winding two-track until the barn door was in the headlights, and he stepped out to begin the shortest task he had ever gone there to do.
"Stay here with Duke" he told Paul. Then he opened both locks and both latches on the barn door
, stepped inside and came out with the same shovel he'd been using down in the well. Just a few paces from the north-east corner of the barn, he dug a hole about three feet deep with ample room at the base for Duke to lie comfortably, and went back to the car.
"It's ready. Here, step out and let me get him. You take the front corners of the blanket and I'll take the back." Duke whimpered but only a little. They carried him as if in a hammock to the grave and lowered him down. The glow of the headlights was indirect, but Paul said they could see that he looked comfortable there. They then draped the corners around him again, this time covering even his head. Dad walked back to the car to get his rifle from the back seat. Paul followed him.
"Do you mind if I stay here at the car?" he asked solemnly.
"That would be..." the last word got stuck in Dad's throat. He swallowed. "That would be fine." He said clearly.
Dad walked into the shadows. Paul chose to stare straight ahead instead and listen to the annoying chirps of a million crickets beyond the headlights. He sat with one foot out the door, squinting toward the glair, gladly lost in the incessant chirping...until a click...and then a high-pitched hush before the silence of the night was shattered.